micro fiction | the big ramp

It’s suicide.

We live in town, but there’s undeveloped land between Gary’s house and mine. The best part is The Hill, with a maze of bike trails and long runs down the hillsides to dirt ramps. Gary and I sit on our bikes at the crest of The Hill, looking down at the biggest ramp we’ve ever seen. You could bury a Slug Bug in the fresh pit after the ramp. Maniacs piled busted boards and thorny mesquite branches in the pit. Clear it, or die.

We don’t want to die. We’ll find another trail. I’m just waiting for Gary to turn his bike around and take the lead.

Except he grins and sends a chill up my arms with a challenge.

“You first.”


I wrote this for an exercise on a writing site. The rules: A real childhood memory in 100 words. Here, I threw the word limit out and added 19 words from the original draft.

In reality, I was with my cousin rather than my best friend, Gary. Turned out the ramp was built by brothers on another block who had dirt bikes. We didn’t try to jump it on our bicycles, which is why I’m alive to tell about it—er, to embellish about it.

The picture: My mountain bike, which won’t be jumping any Volkswagen-sized ramps—not with me riding it!

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story structure | intuition versus knowledge

I wrote last week about reading Story Structure—Demystified by Larry Brooks and discovering a perfect execution of the four-part structure in the last novel I had read, Delirium by Lauren Oliver.

Here’s what nagged at me: This structure wasn’t new to me. My earliest finished novel hit the milestones like this:

First Plot Point at exactly 25%: The main antagonist reveals himself.

Midpoint at 47%: The storylines of the human and alien protagonists converge. United, they stop running and start to fight back.

Second Plot Point at exactly 75%: A betrayal makes a minor antagonist ally with the protagonists, setting up a joint effort to defeat the main antagonist.

I plotted my next novel and divided it into four parts. Each part served its correct purpose: Setup, Defense, Offense, Climax. Each ended with an event that changed everything.

So who needs to learn about story structure? I was a pro at this stuff. Right?

Wrong.

I panstered that first novel. The plot milestones fell into place after rewriting segments spanning tens of thousands of words. My original antagonist became too likable, too justified, and teamed up with the good guys. I had to grab a minor character and go back as far as possible to build him up as the new main antagonist.

I plotted the next novel, and based the four parts on a vague recognition of the three-act structure of films with a midpoint.

That doesn’t mean I knew what I was doing. My next novel was the best and most mainstream so far, the one outlined in the most detail. The shape of its plot structure looks like a Glaucus Atlanticus.

The best candidate for First Plot Point comes at 44%. That makes the break into the climax seem like the Midpoint. Rewrites had only swelled the novel before the First Plot Point. I quit working on it because of this—and I hadn’t even discovered Larry Brooks yet. I just knew the novel wasn’t balanced, without understanding why.

Intuition worked for me up to a point. But to stay on track, I needed knowledge.

i hate dogs

I hate ‘em.

That’s me a few years ago. Mom raised me a cat person. Cats seemed quiet and affectionate just the right amount of the time, compared to the needy, energetic, yipping dogs I’d been around. Like my childhood friend’s Chihuahua. Bug-eyed stares. Nervous and cold. It’d poop in their den and my friend would bribe me to clean it up. Our cats were house-trained.

My future mother-in-law had two Miniature Schnauzers. They’d hop on the couch and sniff, brushing me with their salt and pepper beards, and I’d cower. “You don’t like dogs, do you?” I decided brutal honesty was called for in case this was a deal-breaker. “Can’t stand them.” It went over okay. They said at least the dogs liked me, and dogs sense good people.

One of the Schnauzers belonged to my wife. She assured me, “My mom is so attached to those dogs, she’ll never let one go.” The phone rang immediately after we were married and in our first house. “Come. Get. Your. Dog.” The honeymoon was over.

I won the battle over the dog sleeping on the bed, its head on the pillows between us like it was used to at the in-laws’, but I didn’t win the war. That dog passed, succeeded by a Jack Rat despite my protests. I wear the pants in this family. Monday through Friday, 7:30 to 4:00.

Our daughter wanted a big dog. Sounded like a problem multiplied. Bigger barks, vomit, puddles and poop. I put my foot down because we had a small backyard, but promised that if we ever moved to the country, she could have a big dog. Maybe two.

We moved, and this happened…

2016 02 06 tilly

We got into our country home in October that year. I told my daughter to wait for Spring, that if she got a big dog, it’d be an outside dog, and I didn’t want her whining that her puppy was freezing in the cold.

She brought Tilly home in December. German Shepherd and Canadian Wolf mix. “Legit,” said one of my son’s friends. A typical small dog, as far as I was concerned—it being a puppy and all. Running, biting, yipping, occasionally howling. Once, it lost track of my wife in the house, sat, pointed its nose at the ceiling and let loose a long howl. Cute, for about a sec. My son had friends over and one noted our puppy was freezing outside. My son said, “It’s a wolf. From Canada. It ain’t cold.” High five.

Tilly grew big. She destroyed everything. The corner of the entertainment center. The sprinkler system. The satellite dish wires. I had to put a steel dryer vent on the back of the house. She jumped and put her mouth on our arms—perfect bite inhibition, but you’d look down and see your forearm in the mouth of a wolf and yank it back and, well, her teeth were serrated like a shark’s. We have scars.

At a year and a half, Tilly abruptly matured. No jumping and scarring. If she ever barked, we checked around the house because something or someone strange had shown up. She didn’t growl in play, which was a little unnerving, being used to the frothy snarls of the Jack Rat. Tilly became calm and unobtrusive. Like a big cat.

I ran across a passage in a book that explained my mindset. From Drive, Ride, Repeat by Al Macy:

Ted and Britta have a little dog named “Sophie.” It’s some kind of Lassie Apso, or Cocka Shitzel. I’ll now draw on my vast scientific background to tell you something about dogs. Here is an actual brain of a dog:
2016 02 06 dog brain barrier
The lightning bolt things are neuroses attempting to enter the dog’s brain. Large dogs have a “dog brain barrier” (Canis cerebrum obice) which keeps the neuroses from entering the brain. This barrier is absent in small dogs.

I apologize. If you have small dogs and love them, great. I’m sure they’re the best. Maybe I’m not quite the good person those Schnauzers sensed. But for me, Al Macy hit the nail on the head. Why I love dogs, big dogs, and took so long to discover it.

Then came Taiga, our Siberian Husky. And that’s a different story.


The dog brain illustration, courtesy of Al Macy.

Those are Taiga’s eyes at the top of the post. She has the attitude to match.

rejection is good

A few years ago, an agent gave me the rejection I needed at the time. I had an inbox full of form rejections for my novel. Even a few personal notes with encouragement like “There’s a lot to like about your premise.” More so the usual phrases that soften the blow. “I’m afraid I’m not interested enough in your story…” or “Publishing is a highly subjective business.”

I sent my revised query one more time and mailed the requested pages. The form rejection came with a parenthetical remark.

“…I’m not interested enough in your story (or the telling of it)…”

What did that look like to my eyes?

“Oh, and btw, your writing sucks.”

It took me about thirty seconds to smooth my feathers back down and say, “He’s right. There’s something wrong with my writing.” I always knew, but I needed that nudge to admit it. To do something about it.

My next Google search was this: How to write a good sentence. I didn’t need to tweak my writing. I didn’t need to go to the next level. I needed to go back to the basics. The problem ran that deep.

The search results included How to Write Long Sentences by Eli James on Novelr. Have a look and come back.

In case you skipped it, here’s the nut. Begin sentences with the subject and verb, as close together as possible, as early as possible. Let everything else branch to the right.

My problem wasn’t mastering the long and winding sentences like the beautiful “I fly…” example Eli James used. My problem was that my go-to structure for too many compound sentences looked like the opening sentence of my novel:

Met with encroaching smiles and obligating nods, Alexis Laird wondered if survival was worth the visibility it demanded.

I began with anything but the subject and verb. I had decided this was eloquent writing somewhere along the way, without realizing how it muddied the water. I’d write a paragraph and gaze at it, wondering if anyone would understand it. And I didn’t know why. “Right-branching sentences” answered that question.

The learning never stops, but this remains my biggest epiphany. Today, I still begin sentences with a clause before the subject and verb, but only if that’s the best way to establish a place or time, and only if the clause is short (like the beginning of this sentence or the first sentence of this post). And sometimes for effect.

Typical writer. Learn a rule, then break it. Which works best when you know you’re doing it and why.

I wish those five words—“or the telling of it”—were slipped into the first rejection. I’ll thank that agent one day. Well, I kinda just did.


The picture: Icy branches against a stark blue sky, branching to the right. Then a paint filter.

story structure

Last year, I read Story Structure—Demystified by Larry Brooks. I finished the read with mixed feelings. Larry had made a good argument about the “absolute necessity” of writing a structured novel. It sounded easy enough to apply.

But I wasn’t convinced.

I sat there for several minutes, questioning this “absolute.” Thing was, Larry’s examples of books that exhibited the four-part structure weren’t part of my personal experience.

So I grabbed the last novel I read. Delirium by Lauren Oliver (my daughter’s book; I read a lot of YA thanks to sharing books with her). I wouldn’t rate Delirium one of my favorites, but I did feel as though I was in the hands of a master storyteller.

I flipped to the back. About 440 pages. Multiplied by .25, that means the First Plot Point should fall around page 110. I flipped there…

Lena, the main character, lives in an alternate present where love was declared a disease and is “cured” at age 18 by a procedure on the brain. Until 18, the state strictly monitors and separates boys and girls, lest they catch the disease and infect others.

Lo, page 110 is in the middle of the chapter when a friend opens Lena’s eyes to an underworld of unauthorized music—love songs on forbidden websites—and secret parties where boys and girls mingle in defiance of the rules. Like the First Plot Point should, this revelation changes Lena’s trajectory. Her “ordinary world” is gone and she’s now in the “exotic world.”

440 divided by 2 puts us at page 220 and the Midpoint, which should be where the character stops running and starts on offense.

Indeed, there it was. In Part 1, the Setup of the novel, Lena met Alex, who seemed interested in her. After the First Plot Point, Lena spent all of Part 2 trying to avoid letting this curious young man take her eyes off the prize of the “cure.” Running from Alex. Running from love.

Page 220 is in the middle of a chapter where Alex rescues Lena during a raid of an illegal party. This thrusts them together in hiding, and Lena’s heart changes. The Midpoint changes everything as dramatically as the First Plot Point did. Lena stops running from love and spends Part 3 pursuing love with Alex.

The Second Plot Point begins the climax of a novel. Right in step, page 330 is in the middle of the chapter that kicks of the climax. Lena and Alex are in love. She can’t go through with the cure. This means they’ll have to escape to the unregulated “Wilds” outside the city fences. Thus begins their final confrontation with the system that outlaws their love.

The Pinch Points were in Delirium as well. The moments midway through Part 2 and Part 3 when the reader is reminded of the stakes.

I’ll say it again. Not one of my favorite novels, but I felt like I was in the hands of a master storyteller. The plot of Delirium wasn’t a series of random turns down bumpy dirt roads, but a well-planned, structured roller coaster that smoothly delivered surprises right on queue, right to the end of the ride.

Was I convinced of the “absolute necessity” of this four-part structure with each part playing its proper role in the story? I was well on my way.

More in a later post.


About the picture: We see plenty of thunderheads forming in the West Texas skies. The twin columns in the picture on the right made me do a double-take before I snapped the picture.